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The Top 10 green living myths

Is your lifestyle as ecofriendly as you think it is?

By / May 13, 2009

Which is more environmentally friendly – buying milk in a plastic jug or a paper carton?

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Later today, the website Climate Culture is releasing a list of the 2009 Top Green Myths, things that you do – or don't do – because you've read or been told they're good or bad for the environment – but which, surprisingly, may not be producing the green results you're expecting.

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Lots of these have been argued before -- Is local food always greener? Are paper bags better than plastic? -- and there's not always one "right" answer to them. But let's look at the list and then get your opinion :

1. Green myth: Recycled paper is better for the environment than virgin paper. Fact: Recycled paper can sometimes be more carbon intensive than virgin paper. It depends on where you live. If your home is in the Pacific Northwest or Maine, where much of the electricity comes from hydro power, you may be better off with virgin paper since plants that manufacture recycled paper are often near large metro areas where power is from less efficient sources. The "difference in emissions from electricity use in paper production can be larger than the emissions associated with cutting down the tree to produce paper in the first place," notes Zeke Hausfather, executive vice president of energy science at Climate Culture.

2. Green myth: Local food is always greener. Fact: "The method of production and type of food is far more important than the distance traveled in determining life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions. For example, chicken from the supermarket is likely greener than local beef from the farmer's market." That said, there are plenty of other reasons to buy locally produced food, Mr. Hausfather admits.

3. Green myth: Washing dishes by hand uses less water than a dishwasher. Fact: It depends. Often, people underestimate how much hot water they use when washing dishes by hand. The most environmentally friendly way: washing your dishes in cold water.

4. Green myth: It's better to drive to your vacation destination than to fly. Fact: Not if your car is an SUV, station wagon, minivan, or truck. That may be mitigated, though, if you have the entire family in the car, or drive a car that's fuel-efficient.

5. Green myth: Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) result in mercury emissions; incandescents don't. Fact: "CFLs generally result in less mercury emissions than conventional incandescents, since coal-based electricity generation is the single largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions and CFLs save a considerable amount of electricity," says Hausfather. While much has been made of the mercury dangers of broken CFLs, he notes that most of the bulb's mercury is bound to the glass.

6. Green myth: Given a choice between paper bags and plastic bags, go with paper. Fact: From a standpoint of carbon emissions, they're equally bad. Plastic is worst from a solid waste perspective. (But plastic is a littering problem in many places.) Most environmentally friendly of all, as you already know, is bringing your own reusable bags (which is, admittedly, easier if you aren't buying groceries for a family of four).

7. Green myth: An electric car is best for the environment. Fact: If you live in a state where most of your electricity is generated by coal, that's not so. In those areas, electric cars can emit more carbon than high-efficient hybrids. Unless the electricity for the car is generated solely by renewable energy, electric vehicles are "far from zero emissions."

8. Green myth: If you want to help alleviate global warming, plant trees. Fact: Once again, it depends on where you live. In areas with cold winters, "the additional sunlight absorbed by the dark-colored trees just about offsets any cooling from carbon reduced." In high-latitude regions, "planting trees can actually heat up the earth," Hausfather says. However, in urban areas and the tropics, planting trees is good from a global-warming perspective. (Remember, this is talking only about benefits to the climate, not to trees or other ecosystem effects.)

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